- - Wednesday, December 14, 2016

North Korea is preparing to conduct new missile tests amid heightened tensions in Northeast Asia.

U.S. intelligence agencies say Pyongyang will likely conduct a new salvo of missile launches following the latest round of United Nations sanctions against the reclusive communist state.

The world organization on Dec. 1 imposed additional sanctions that seek to block North Korea’s revenue obtained from exports by 25 percent. The sanctions bar member-states from purchasing North Korean copper, nickel, silver and zinc exports, and the sale of large statues, a favored purchase for African dictators. The sanctions followed a recent North Korean underground nuclear test.

In the past, Pyongyang responded to similar sanctions with provocative missile launches.

North Korea’s most recent missile test was a failed launch of an intermediate-range ballistic missile called the Musudan in October. The missile has an estimated range of 2,000 miles and its development has set off alarm bells in the Pentagon and in Japan. Officials said the next missile test could be a Musudan launch to counteract the earlier test failure.

Military officials said the North Koreans are engaged in an impressive missile development program for systems of varying ranges and launch modes.

North Korea has yet to launch one of its new road-mobile KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missiles. The new ICBM is deployed on Chinese-made missile launchers that are banned under international sanctions on Pyongyang.

North Korea has conducted several tests of a new submarine-launched missile known as the KN-11. The most recent flight test of the missile took place in August. North Korea also has conducted five underground nuclear tests, the most recent one on Sept. 9.

U.S. intelligence agencies estimate the North Korean nuclear arsenal includes between 10 and 20 warheads.

Chinese military construction

China has made major gains in building up its military facilities on newly-created islands in the South China Sea, according to new satellite imagery made public this week.

“China appears to have built significant point-defense capabilities, in the form of large anti-aircraft guns and probable close-in weapons systems, at each of its outposts in the Spratly Islands,” the Center for Strategic and International Studies reported Tuesday.

The new facilities have expanded from Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi reefs first spotted in June and July to point-defense fortifications on smaller facilities known as Gaven, Hughes, Johnson and Cuarteron reefs. Satellite imagery posted online by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative shows guns and other weapons systems on several of China’s key islands that the Pentagon has said are part of a covert effort by Beijing to take control of the strategic waterway.

Disclosure of new military facilities comes as the head of the U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris, warned China against further aggressive action in the South China Sea.

“We will not allow a shared domain to be closed down unilaterally no matter how many bases are built on artificial features in the South China Sea,” Adm. Harris said Wednesday in a speech in Sydney, Australia. “We will cooperate when we can, but we will be ready to confront when we must.”

The comments were the first by the four-star admiral on the maritime dispute since reports surfaced two months ago that he had been muzzled by the White House from making statements critical of China.

Adm. Harris said American naval forces would continue to conduct freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea to ensure the strategic waterway remains international waters. Any decision for Australia to conduct similar operations is up to the Australian government, he added.

“The U.S. fought its first war following our independence to ensure freedom of navigation,” Adm. Harris said. “This is an enduring principle and one of the reasons our forces stand ready to fight tonight.”

China military unrest

President-elect Donald Trump’s recent comments about U.S.-China relations are not the only worry facing China’s Communist rulers. Leaders in Beijing are increasingly worried about growing military unrest from tens of thousands of disgruntled former soldiers who can’t find work, according to Pentagon officials.

Beijing criticized Mr. Trump for remarks Sunday questioning China’s policy of having sovereignty over Taiwan.

The anger in the ranks of ousted People’s Liberation Army soldiers surfaced in a two recent protest demonstrations by tens of thousands of former military personnel who gathered near the Central Military Commission (CMC) headquarters in Beijing in October and November.

“There are real security concerns in Beijing about these demobilized soldiers,” said a U.S. intelligence official. “They are kind of being pushed over the edge by the government.”

The first protest involved between 20,000 and 30,000 former soldiers on Oct. 11 at the CMC headquarters — the ultimate power center in China whose chairman is President Xi Jinping.

The military protesters included older veterans and recently demobilized troops. They came from a dozen cities around the country and were demanding the CMC provide promised pension, medical and social security benefits.

A second protest took place Nov. 1 but details of the number of protesters could not be learned. The November protest received far less news coverage as Chinese authorities took steps to prevent reporting, both in China and abroad.

The veterans’ anger highlights what U.S. intelligence has estimated is one of China’s most politically dangerous protest movements. The former soldiers have been mistreated by the government and more are being demobilized as part of plans to streamline the Chinese military.

The disgruntled soldiers represent a new kind of opposition to the ruling Communist Party and the party-controlled People’s Liberation Army.

Chinese internal security troops and police were called out during the protests, and police tried to prevent news reporters from covering the protests. Prior to the November demonstration, barricades were erected near the CMC to keep protesters away from the military headquarters, Radio Free Asia reported from Beijing.

“I signed up to the army in 1976 in Beijing, and was demobilized in 1988,” said one veteran who identified himself only as Gao. “It wasn’t too bad to start with, but then they started laying people off in the factories, and we were just given [$58] and told to leave. That was never going to be enough. We have been unfairly treated. I gave my best years to the army, and I have nothing to show for it.”

The protesters included both former enlisted soldiers, and officers as well as soldiers who took part in Chinese nuclear tests, and China’s 1979 border war with Vietnam. Chinese internal security forces also have started cracking down on the protesters after they returned to their home districts. Detention facilities have been set up in hotels where former military members are interrogated, beaten and harassed.

The protests also have continued on China’s vibrant social media platforms, prompting tighter censorship.

The ruling Communist Party leadership regards the military protests as a major threat to stability.

“Neither the high-pressure stability maintenance strategy, nor President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign have been able to address the huge inequalities within the system for the distribution of economic benefits,” political analyst Liang Jing Liang stated in a recent commentary for Radio Free Asia. “This will leave more and more people angry and dissatisfied, and eventually all of that dissatisfaction is going to be directed at the government.”

Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.

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